Wednesday, September 24, 2014

fragments shored against my ruins, or, three reviewable atlanta exhibitions i shall not review


Three Atlanta Exhibitions About Which I Shall Not Write Reviews




From the lumpy sculptures in the front to the broken clay vessels scattered across the floor in the back, adjacent to the wall text of a poem by Pessoa, “Movable Types” (the Art Papers-curated exhibition at Ponce City Market through September 28) raises questions that I don’t feel the slightest inclination to have answered, much less to answer through my own research. It’s useful to have the explanation of the wall grid of images depicting cherry stems, but it’s enough to enjoy them as glyphs of some alphabet or algorithm I’ll never understand.

The pun on “movable type” indicates the deliberately uncertain or slippery place of the exhibition in terms of form and language alike: it is a type of exhibition that resists being made conceptually immobile, or out of play rather than playfully in play, always. Like movable type, its components will be reused for other purposes (in fact the broken ceramics in the back will be distributed like some latter-day version of a Tibetan sand mandala, except that unlike the transient order of the mandala, the work began with an act of disordering that was itself a form of order...as in Wallace Stevens’ poetic assertion in "Connoisseur of Chaos," “1. A violent order is a disorder; and / 2. A great disorder is an order. These / Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)”

I’m very glad I don’t have to write a review of the exhibition, because it would entail re-reading Georges Bataille and re-upping my recollections of what the famous “Informe” exhibition was all about, and I just don’t want to do any of that right now.

But I think it would be great for folks who happen to be in the vicinity of Ponce City Market during gallery hours to stop by and ask, if they are so inclined, to have the show explained to them. But first and foremost, to look at all the stuff that I don’t feel up to explaining in detail. I especially don’t feel like trying to describe the videos. But the slippery quality of description is part of what the show is about. Or maybe not about, for “aboutness” itself is the problem. Ludwig Wittgenstein thought that a philosophical problem took the form of “I don’t know my way about,” but it might rather be “I don’t know about my way,” or worse, “My way doesn’t know about me.”


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“Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser,” at Cherrylion Studios through September 26, is a curious kind of show in a couple of different ways. Walking into it may give the feeling of falling down a rabbit hole, but apart from that, the exhibition is not really an homage to Lewis Carroll’s most memorable creation.



It’s an independent exhibition of 9 members of a critique group of women artists, as curated by Michelle Pizer of Pizer Fine Arts. It, too, deserves the level of review I simply cannot write under duress, though it holds up perfectly well without one.




In fact, it is the variety of visual pleasure in this small exhibition that makes it singularly worth seeking out in the two days or so that are left to seek it out (if you read this as soon as it is posted, which most of this note’s potential readers are unlikely to do). Patty Nelson Merrifield’s witty taxidermy sculptures alone are worth the price of admission. (Admission is free, of course, so that is less high praise than I had meant to convey with that cliché. Please insert smiley-face emoticon here.)



People who already know Linda Mitchell’s work will find new and quite different iterations of it. Ditto for Edie Morton’s encaustics, Mary Anne Mitchell’s photographs, and Chris Dolan’s drawings...Dena Light is only one of the artists who are less likely to be familiar to gallerygoers, and the same goes for Shannon Davis, Deborah Hill, and Julie Grant, all of whom contributed singularly interesting works to this diverse yet tightly curated exhibition.





And that detail-less observation brings me to:

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Henry Callahan’s “Beyond Abstraction: Expressing Nature,” at Reinike Gallery through September 27, is a show that will not be helped in the slightest by this note regarding its existence, for its most likely interested viewers do not read Facebook and are unlikely to find a notice on a blog.



These are loose, diversely painted evocations of places in nature, eminently worth the analysis I cannot at present give them, although they are also works which it is more important to match up with an audience than to provide with a discerning critical analysis. There are those to whom these paintings will speak deeply, and there are those who are likely to remain unresponsive to the set of aesthetics these paintings embody. That is simply a fact of human psychology and personal predilections.



It is highly unlikely that more than a handful of viewers would find “Movable Types” and “Beyond Abstraction” equally appealing, though it is possible to imagine someone who would find equal pleasure in the shattered ceramic shards of the one and the darker range of paintings in the other. (It is possible to imagine this because I did it.)


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And this pathetic expression of complete exhaustion does little more than acknowledge the existence of these exhibitions and show off a few photographs (left unlabeled because with few exceptions I have no information regarding them).

And there are still more bodies of work in current and recent exhibitions that deserve extremely detailed and serious analysis, not least analysis of the mismatch between work and probable audience—this latter would be different in every city in which the work might be exhibited.

Given my interest in how different very small parts of the planet respond differently to different artistic stimuli (cf. the earlier, programmatic essays on this Counterforces blog), I am fascinated by the Atlanta-centric problem of critical and audience response to a particular species of painting.

The genre I have in mind seems to combine representational references (usually modestly specific ones), geometric abstraction, biomorphic abstraction, and gestural painterliness in one big, sometimes chaotic but just as often complexly organized canvas.

And the general response thus far has been betwixt and between; scarcely anyone seems to know what to say about it, or if they do they haven’t stepped forward to say so. And audiences seem equally indifferent when they are not bewildered.

But all that will have to wait for some other exhausted evening, or some less sleep-deprived writer.




Tuesday, September 23, 2014

a deliberately loopy recommendation to attend or contemplate an Eyedrum exhibition

“hymHouse,” at Eyedrum until the closing performances from 7 to 10 p.m. on September 26, is described as a twenty-first century homage to the example set by Judy Chicago, whose postcard from 1979 is framed and hung on the wall by the main exhibition statement. (Other highly useful notes and artist’s statements appear on foamcore cards next to the other artworks; this exhibition cannot be accused of withholding information, except in a very few cases in which the information ought to be obvious to everybody, but isn’t—which may be part of the point of the work.)

An evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the show is already off-limits to a male heterosexual art critic writing from a subject position that almost renders it impossible to say anything at all. Unfortunately, all of the women art reviewers who might have written about this show seem to have been too busy with their own immediate issues, including making a living by working three jobs (like artworld folks of almost all conceivable sorts).

So if I don’t tell folks they ought to go check it out, nobody else will. But I’m not offering a review, even if it sometimes looks that way.

The show is, to a surprising degree, about how we inhabit our bodies, and what we do with them while we are in them. We are not quite the same as our bodies, whether we are also immortal souls or just a bunch of socially influenced autonomic responses—but who we are is highly influenced by whether we inhabit a male or female body, and the socially shaped but largely preconscious sexual responses of that body. But regardless of the extent to which how we think and react can be changed by social and psychological circumstances, some things are primal.

And “hymHouse” is heavy on the primal and the basic social responses to the primal. It happens, however, to be specifically about how women in particular inhabit their bodies, and what they do with them and how others react to that, and that fact inevitably shapes the space of the discussion and perception by any individual writer. We never start from a universal standpoint, even when we think we do. (Those who think they do have mostly been men, incidentally, and in this particular culture, they have mostly been white, economically secure men. Just in case you were wondering.)

Stephanie Pharr’s vitrine documenting the detritus of menstruation (bloodstained panties that men without sisters or female live-in partners might not recognize as such) was counterpointed on opening night by the sight of her own largely unclad body covered only by a transparent poncho, the aforementioned genital-covering undergarment and a pair of emerald-green high-heeled shoes. The combination was disconcerting to almost everybody, and the social interpretation of this minimal combination, posted on Facebook, was also exceptionally thought-provoking, especially since the thoughts expressed in the comments were so incompatible with one another.

Andre Keichian’s video response to a wisecrack that “lesbians are so narcissistic that they just want to have sex with themselves” consisted of a sexualized wrestling match between herself and herself, projected between a chair that had been split in two and attached to the wall. The other video-and-sculpture contributions were similarly primary, if not primal: issues of pregnancy, personal grooming, and elementary forms of social interaction predominated in this contemporary homage to first-wave feminism. Questions such as how well women can handle the equations of quantum mechanics (hint: most women can do this about as well as most men, given the general innumeracy of the population) were not a topic of conversation. Co-curator Martha Whittington’s impressive accomplishments in mechanical engineering were not on display. (Stephanie Pharr and Onur Topal-Sumer were the other curators, and as I said above, I am not pretending to write a review of what they did with this exhibition; I’m just writing down a very few possible reactions.)

Part of what was on display, and on display quite exquisitely, too, was Lisa Alembik’s exercise in thoughtfully and elegantly imbalanced ceramics, an homage to her female forebears combined with a fresh take on Meret Oppenheim in a set of sculptural teacups and saucers with hair embedded or embodied in the ensemble.



To discuss this further would be to say too little or too much.

Likewise, the opening night performances other than Pharr’s endurance work (it lasted from before the beginning until some unspecified time after the end of the reception) are difficult to analyze without the use of copious notes that I didn't make; performance goes away instant by instant as it unfolds, and in between performance times, there is only the physical residue and the mute testimony of the artworks surrounding the performance space. Like the daily activity of keeping any space habitable, the effort vanishes into forgetfulness, not into history.

And I for one am really sorry that the people who could have written about all this were too overwhelmed with other stuff to spend time producing essays that could have shed light on the successes and failures of a show that was apparently a year or more in the planning.

However, the closing reception, during which a full range of performances will once again be offered (though I couldn’t find out what performances) will happen on Friday night, September 26, so there is one more opportunity to set the historical record straight, or just to evaluate the exhibition for yourself if you happen to read this in time.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Byzantine Things in the World, a Year Later: a Belated Post Delayed by Formatting Issues






Byzantine Things in the World: A Preliminary Exploration of an Extraordinary Experiment (The Menil Collection, Houston, May 3 - August 18, 2013)

Jerry Cullum

What does it mean to enter into an exhibition that changes our perception of space by way of the objects that occupy it? The answer at first seems obvious, because exhibitions have been altering space in that self-aware way since Malevich hung his Black Square in the place normally occupied by an icon, nearly a century ago. At first incautious glance, Glenn Peers’ “Byzantine Things in the World” exhibition at the Menil Collection looks to have returned the icons to their accustomed places (albeit with the intellectual saints Athanasius and Basil replacing Christ and the Virgin as they frame a secularization of the Holy Door through which the priest approaches the altar):



But we may soon notice something strangely amiss:



Eventually we may discover a chillingly near-familiar placement of a remarkable icon of the Mother of God. But in order to reach this space deep within the galleries, we must traverse a thoroughly unfamiliar territory:



There is an alternation of light and dark in which color and object rhyme curiously:



“In the gloom, the gold / gathers the light against it,” as Ezra Pound wrote of the Byzantine splendors of Ravenna, but the gold is from Rauschenberg and Klein:



The abstract gold of the wall-dominating paintings is echoed in the gold of a tiny Byzantine reliquary, juxtaposed with a gold-enhanced Entry into Jerusalem icon:



An aniconic atmospheric painting echoes the longstanding claims of abstraction to a modernist form of spirituality, a claim that reached its zenith in the Rothko Chapel:



But the aniconic painting itself is adjacent to another Byzantine icon:



Other juxtapositions seem to make other, more mysterious claims, such as Joseph Cornell’s “Owl Habitat” box positioned in equality with a Byzantine saint, adjacent to a Gobelin tapestry that has no religious content whatsoever:



The exhibition is filled with shocking contrasts of scale and lighting that also feature parallels of shape but not of function, or else of function in startlingly different shapes:



The exhibition catalogue thoroughly revises our sense of how objects ought to operate and be approached, but it gives only a faint approximation of the sheer sensory disorientation achieved by “Byzantine Things in the World,” the exhibition space, during an all too brief presentation of the things themselves:



The sense of a postmodern sacred given by the exhibition is exceeded, we might imagine, only by the vacancy left in the now-unviewable Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum elsewhere on the grounds of the Menil Collection, a building that was constructed specifically to house the long-term loan of dome and apse icons restored by the Menil after their recovery from art thieves in northern Cyprus:



The restored icons were resituated in their traditional devotional places, but in an almost startlingly contemporary architectural setting, which Peers refers to in the exhibition catalogue as a glass chapel:



Minus the icons, which have now been returned to Cyprus after the agreed-upon loan period, the chapel might become as eloquent a space of absence as the nearby Rothko Chapel, but no one seems to have realized this, not even Glenn Peers whose exhibition was inspired by the hybridity of the original icon-inhabited space:



What Peers did recognize was the relevance of the longer-term “Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision” exhibition elsewhere in the Menil Collection, a room reproducing the sort of unexpected juxtaposition of modernist, found, and tribal objects that characterized the Surrealists’ own exhibitions.



As with this “room of wonders,” Peers’ exhibition succeeds by virtue of its manipulation of form and space long before any of his debatable propositions regarding the relational nature of objects come into play. The contexts imposed by modernist art history and/or Eastern Orthodox sacred narrative have been magicked away by Peers’ curatorial wizardry as thoroughly as the various ethnographic and art-historical contexts insisted upon by scholars have been made to disappear in “Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision.”

Primary experience has replaced reflective analysis. This raises disturbing issues for those of us who insist that human beings are, above all else, storytellers. But human beings are also creatures of induced visionary experience, makers of art that depends upon primary sensory disorientation, and humans have been making such art ever since the Paleolithic cave paintings were drawn to conform to the irregular shape of the rock, and to replicate motion when viewed by flickering torchlight.

If stories give us a sense of our place in the world, we also seem to be a species that likes to experience not quite knowing where we are, in a strangely configured space that encourages deep emotions other than simple dread. The all too briefly available spaces and contrasts of “Byzantine Things in the World” re-created for skeptical contemporaries the sense of disoriented awe that Byzantine churches did for Byzantine worshippers, and that Eastern Orthodox worship spaces still do for those who are responsive to Christian imagery and the Christian message. Determining what else Peers might have accomplished is dependent upon close perusal of his remarkable catalogue, which would have to be the subject of a separate essay. Few of the themes presented in the catalogue are self-evident in the arrangement of the exhibition, though the catalogue clears up a good many conceptual mysteries. The catalogue, however, remains available, while the exhibition exists only as a series of evocative photographs that can only hint at what it was like to move through the space itself.

Text ©2014 Jerry Cullum (all images are copyright by and reproduced by permission of the Menil Collection)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

an incredibly tiny essay on art reviewing

I am feeling melancholy about all the art exhibitions not written about in any size shape or form—not an analysis set in stone for the ages, just a writeup in terms of “Here’s some stuff that a certain demographic will like, and another demographic will absolutely hate.”

[One of the many problems with this is that not even I wanted to read the five hundred additional words I wrote about the topic. Here they are, however:]

...But in the first place, that’s a hard thing to perceive. In the second place there aren’t enough writers to perceive it. In the third place, all but the most mundane of artists like to think they are making work that does more than appeal to sixty-year-old investment bankers in one case, forty-year-old adjunct professors in another, and twenty-three-year-old baristas hoping for more meaningful jobs in yet another. Yet most art falls into this category, and I wish it were possible to write reviews that say, “None of this work will go into art history, but two or three pieces are downright memorable, and half the work is something that folks of a certain age will wish they could own.” But nearly all of us delude ourselves as to the importance of what we are doing—we either value it too highly, or dismiss it as worthless when it isn’t. Reviewers similarly over- or undervalue for reasons that are merely personal/psychological, no matter how sophisticated they think their methodologies are.

So why not more reviews that say, “Here are some photos of what I think are the most interesting works in the show; the artist says this about them (but I disagree/agree with modifications/really don’t care one way or the other), and if you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you will like.” Because there are not more people willing to spend their days seeing artwork they mostly do not like in order to write that sort of review for almost no money, for one thing. For another, it takes considerable skill in sussing out changing socioeconomic dynamics to be able to match artists and audiences. For a third thing, neither artist nor audience wants to have this relationship spelled out so baldly.

Yet some of the people who could do this sort of matchup delicately are engaged instead in trying to write “Ten fun things you probably didn’t know about Ingmar Bergman, including who he was and what he did,” and “Which endangered mammal species are you?” for almost as little money as they would get for writing a match-up type of art review. Some of them, however, may prefer this type of peonage to having to deal with the entire broad spectrum of artists and gallery operators and the people who love and hate them.

This six-hundred-or-so-word chunk of prose is the maximum length for a readable review, in any case; not enough to do justice to most exhibitions but most exhibitions don’t require justice, just audiences. Justice can be done at the artist's retrospective, if the artist is lucky enough to get one.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

and now for another deferral/displacement

I find myself writing more and more posts on joculum.livejournal.com that semi-belong on this blog, but not quite. Still less do they belong on the compendium of more or less coherently expressed ideas that is joculum.dreamwidth.org. For that matter, there are leaps of illogic in the previous essay on photography that ought to be cleared up, but I haven't the time or inclination to do so. I shall continue on with the review essays I have pledged to write but never quite seem to complete.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

a little essay on photography (not quite Walter Benjamin's title)



In Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris, a character announces, gesturing from the book on his table to the cathedral outside, “This will kill that.” “Small things overcome great ones,” he continues. “The book will kill the building.”

In other words, the printing press could produce small things that communicated ideas more immediately and in a more easily distributed form than the sermons in stone that were embodied in the medieval cathedrals. The power and prestige inherent in the work of architecture and the power and prestige symbolized by it could be overturned by a humble and democratic medium (requiring only literary skill and a little technical skill to produce successful results).

When photography was invented, the commonplace pronouncement with regard to painting was “This will kill that.” But seriously innovative painting has survived quite nicely, having found other ways to deploy the medium, just as architecture symbolizing power and prestige has survived quite nicely in spite of the scarcity of world-changing church buildings.

Whether photography as publicly perceived survives its own ease of technical reproducibility is another question. I leave to one side (for the moment) whether it survives the migration to onscreen media; a photograph fired off to Facebook is still a photograph, and quite often a very good photograph. I’m concerned right now with audience attitudes about the medium as an art form.

For a number of years, I selected the award winners in the “My Atlanta” exhibition, a partially unjuried annual show in which members of the community display what the consider their best photographs (photography teachers in high schools also submit the best work of their students, so in that sense the show is also a juried exhibition).

I was invariably struck by a couple of things: First, just how good the best work was; second, how much better many of the photographs by high school students were than many of the photographs by the (mostly) amateur adults; and third, just how often the high school work was more imaginative and far-ranging than most of the work I was seeing in the commercial galleries.

This was and is a confirmation of one of the principles of Atlanta Celebrates Photography: photography is the democratic medium. Although at its traditional best it requires an immense amount of technical expertise, anyone with visual acuity and a sense of composition can make a superb photograph.

The problem lies in that “visual acuity and sense of composition” portion of the equation. Anyone can take a picture, just as anyone can write a sentence. This leads, just as with the once-commonplace response to action painting, to the audience response of “Anyone can do that.”

This is part of what leads to the world’s vast quantities of illiterate-sounding literary productions, bad abstract paintings, and dreadful photographs expensively framed and offered for sale or proudly displayed on living room walls. People assume that they too could do that, and they try to do it, with depressing results.

Eventually, some of them learn what they actually can do, and what they can’t. And the equipment allows them to make a good photograph far more readily than they can make a good painting. As with writing, assiduous imitation of the creative strategies they admire will typically result in a perfectly creditable product, and often a quite beautiful and emotionally evocative one. The same kind of expression of innate skill combined with happy accident can occur in painting and sculpture, but not nearly so often. And because of the effort involved in acquiring the technique, people are less inclined to suppose that they can turn out a masterwork without half trying.

But what if they can, in the same way that self-taught or folk or vernacular artists turn out astonishing drawings, collages, sculptures, and paintings (not to mention installation art) without even knowing there are names for such artistic genres and that they can be studied in academic courses? There are probably almost as many inept or execrable products of self-taught artists as there are inept and execrable products of art schools or community art classes, but the occasional masterwork does emerge through some intrinsic mental capacity to extract lessons from experience. (See the notion of “ecorithms” or natural algorithms in the new book Probably Approximately Correct for a possible evolutionary explanation of self-taught art, although I doubt that the author knows that there is such a thing as self-taught art.)

Provided the picture-taker wasn’t too concerned with having things in sharp focus and was taking pictures in good lighting conditions, photography has long been as easy to do, and as hard to do well, as creating a folk-or-vernacular yard environment (a.k.a. installation art before it had a name). In fact, photography was easier than moving objects around to form significant configurations, because photography is the original found-object art: you see an arrangement of light, color, and objects in the natural world, you frame the found composition in your viewfinder, and you trip the shutter. Behold, a work of art has been created.

In fact, pre-Photoshop, there was in certain circles a whole mystique of the ability to frame the image in your viewfinder so as to exclude the pile of litter just outside the picture. (This also presumes no cropping of the image in the darkroom, a limitation few photographers would accept.) No fair picking up the trash before you portray your scene of beauty; you have to do the heavy lifting in your head instead, keeping the unwanted aspect out of the picture you are about to take. (Before Photoshop evened the playing field, this is where the well-trained painter had the advantage even over the darkroom-savvy photographer: it was much easier to remove the inconveniently placed tree from the scene in a realist painting, or insert, say, a surreal battleship into the middle of Main Street.)

Audiences and photographers are still fighting the battles of two and three generations ago, so nobody has had time to ponder the artistic status of, say, creative screen captures. Is a screen-capture collage a photograph? (It’s certainly not a picture of the world outside the screen itself, nor is it a picture of a picture, exactly, nor is it a digitally manipulated photograph, because it’s the images onscreen that are moved around, if the image-maker is doing a set-up; or more often, the transient images are found and captured in the same way that one would frame a scene in a camera viewfinder and trip the shutter.)

More and more, then, the art depends almost entirely on the perception of the mind that sees the objects and the possibilities in the objects. When a simple touch of the screen creates the image, knowing when to touch the screen becomes the key creative act, in the same way that advances in camera technology reduced the creative act in photography to knowing when and where to take the picture.

This has already blunted popular appreciation of the range of possibilities available to practitioners who have mastered the technical side of things. Just as photographers who knew the ways of darkroom technique were horrified at the the popular notion that pressing the shutter and then taking the film to the drugstore made the average picture-taker the same as Ansel Adams, I presume serious new-media people are horrified that the advent of shortcut software programs for the laptop and the smartphone have resulted in a flood of idiotically conceived images that are instantly posted to social media.

The key component remains, in any case, what the mind that perceives the possibilities does with the technology. There is a lot of really bad tech-savvy art out there, in all media.

Whether any of these newest-media images, good or bad, ever stop being “photographs” is a matter of definition of terms. To return us to our starting point, most folks still think a photograph is a picture of the way things really are in the outside world, the same way they think a painting (a “real painting,” that is) is a painted picture of the way things really are in the outside world.

When we talk about bridging the conceptual gaps between artist and audience, we are talking about distances and depths of division for which the Grand Canyon is an inadequate standard-issue metaphor. The gulfs are more like the Marianas Trench, and like the Trench they have the added difficulty of being invisibly beneath the surface.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The previous post, transferred with slight edits from my other blog, will be further offered in a gesture designed to render still more complex its conceptual-art embeddedness, as an authorized edition. Details to follow someday.

I originally thought of this account of an actual dream as being situated somewhere in between Yves Klein and Tino Sehgal, but now I suppose it is more properly still stuck between Freud and Jung, with a nod to the fiction of John Crowley and China Miéville.

Counterforces and Other Little Jokes